Aspen students hone argument skills for new debate program | AspenTimes.com
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Aspen students hone argument skills for new debate program

Mark Fox/The Aspen Times
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Arguments ricocheted like bullets in the Walter Paepcke Auditorium on Tuesday as well-researched speakers passionately debated the merits of the federal Patriot Act.But windbag politicians and demagogues were noticeably absent. Instead, the room contained Aspen Middle School students, parents and teacher Chris Wheatley. All listened intently as Max Rispoli took on debate duo Casey Altman and Kyle Feuer, each side grilling the other and dissecting their respective arguments.It’s been several years since Aspen schools have had a competitive debate program – and thanks to Wheatley, the high school will have one next year. Tuesday’s debate tournament served to prepare the eighth-graders for competition against students from around the Front Range.

Rispoli, who went undefeated as the tournament’s champion, said he enjoyed the experience and looks forward to debating in high school. And aside from helping students understand things like the Patriot Act, debating provides a bit of leverage when dealing with the parents.”I get my way a lot more,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to talk to my mom now.”Rispoli won despite not having a debate partner – teams debated in pairs – but said he wouldn’t have had it any other way.”If things are easier, I don’t work as hard,” Rispoli said.Even though Meg Lansburgh doesn’t plan on debating in high school – she and friends Cristal Trevizo and Caelina Eldred-Thielen were firm on that decision – she appreciated what the challenge taught her.”You have to be patient, you have to think on the spot,” Lansburgh said. “You just have to be quick and aggressive.”

This is no drawn-out, TelePrompTed presidential debate, either. Debaters gave several speeches ranging from three to five minutes long. Sounds like plenty of time to give an eloquent speech – but the perspective changes if you’re under the gun.”Even though five minutes seems like a long time, it feels a lot shorter,” debater Matt Smith said.All the debaters had to do their own research to prepare – sometimes hours a day over the course of a few weeks, according to most participants. The research materials ranged from Wall Street Journal articles to more obscure publications. Wheatley provided a basis for everyone to work off of, but most kids had to do their own work to win. The veteran debate instructor spent plenty of time helping the more determined students after school, too.”I could never outsmart that guy,” Rispoli said. “I probably wouldn’t have gotten half my arguments if he didn’t help out a little bit.”Wheatley concluded the final round beaming, excited for next year’s competition. But he wouldn’t take much credit for what his students accomplished.



“The key to being a great debate coach is having great debaters,” Wheatley said.Even if some of the students don’t continue, Wheatley was confident they had gained valuable skills for the future – especially when dealing with peers.”They can speak. They don’t have to punch people,” Wheatley said. Wheatley will spend the summer preparing himself and his students for next year. And even if some students didn’t fare so well, Wheatley offered simple advice for the future:”The answer to bad debating is more debating.”Greg Schreier’s e-mail address is gschreier@aspentimes.com


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